The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 
by David Mitchell.
Sceptre, 469 pp., £18.99, May 2010, 978 0 340 92156 2
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David Mitchell’s new novel is set on and around an artificial island called Dejima, constructed in the bay of Nagasaki to house representatives of the Vereenigde Oest-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), the sole official conduit for European trade with Japan during almost all of the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns (1603-1867). Dejima is tiny: ‘two hundred paces along its outer curve … by 80 paces deep’ containing ‘some 25 roofs’. It is both connected to and separated from the mainland by a gated bridge: the Dutch are allowed to cross, but only rarely.

The islet is crammed with men: Chief Vorstenbosch, Deputy Melchior van Cleef, Dr Marinus, Senior Clerk Peter Fischer, Junior Clerk Ponke Ouwehand, Arie Grote, Piet Baert, Ivo Oost, Wybo Gerritszoon. Their conversation is as cacophonous as their names. For instance: ‘most of us hands gather of an evenin’ in my humble billet, eh, for a little hazard ’n’ companionship, an’ as you plainly ain’t no Stuffed-Shirt Hoity-Toity, why not join us?’ (that is an invitation to join a game of cards). There are also slaves (Ignatius, Moses, Cupido, Philander, d’Orsaiy), who figure as marginally in the book as in the traders’ minds; interpreters (Yonekizu, Goto, Hori, Ogawa), who double as informers; and unnamed Japanese women brought across the bridge to be had sex with. The narrative periodically changes location but only to similarly constrained places: the walled and guarded magistracy in Nagasaki; a gated family compound; an English frigate, all stifling passageways and stinking underdecks; a sinister closed nunnery within a sinister closed shrine.

Into this archipelago of confinement step Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk from the Netherlands who is hoping to earn his fortune; and Aibagawa Orito, a young midwife whose skill has earned her the privilege of studying under the island’s physician, Dr Marinus, and thus of being, apart from the courtesans and their attendants, the only Japanese woman allowed to visit Dejima. The story clings mostly to the consciousnesses of these two young people and always to their concerns: we follow them from July 1799 to October 1800 (with two brief codas set in 1811 and 1817). On Dejima, trade is problematic, translation difficult; letters home, and news from home, take years. The narrative, done mainly in simple sentences in the present tense, registers each second that seems not to pass. The encumbered text which results, odd by any measure, is the more so coming from a writer who made his name – in Ghostwritten (1999), number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004) – as a globetrotter of the mind, effortlessly linking cultures from Belgium to Mongolia, channel-hopping genres from epistolary to sci-fi while soaring into the future and back again via a narrative continuum where reality blends with dream. This nemesis of the supposed insularity of modern British fiction has chosen here to lock his imagination to a different, even smaller island.

There is some precedent, however, in Mitchell’s last novel, Black Swan Green (2006). It too is set mainly in one small place – a village in Worcestershire – and spans just more than a year: 1982. The books have several other similarities. Both feature a vulnerably virtuous young male who feels alienated from his surroundings, is subject to bullying by a gang of associates with ugly names and forms an attachment to an empowered young female from a different culture. In Black Swan Green a schoolboy from a posh estate fancies a farm girl who is ‘the opposite of posh’ and who likes tougher kids than he will ever be; in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet … well, we’ll come to that. Both protagonists have difficulties in communicating (the 13-year-old Jason Taylor has a stammer, Jacob de Zoet has to learn Japanese); both achieve surprising popularity among their peers by siding with institutional authority (snitching to the headteacher; refusing to collaborate in personal profiteering); and both achieve a melancholy wisdom. Tangled international relations in 1799 in Nagasaki and coming of age in the Home Counties two centuries later both play out in much the same narrative grammar.

This surprising repetition is an example of a difficulty that has dogged Mitchell’s writing from the start. Any transnational novel must, while absorbing something of the difference of the other culture – its values, rhythms, habits of perception – still be readable as English fiction. A succession of writers, from (say) James or Kipling onwards, have made some accommodation to this and have altered the form and texture of the novel accordingly. But what has always been troubling in Mitchell’s work is how untroubling his accounts of different cultures are. Ghostwritten gathered first-person narratives uttered in succession by a member of a murderous Japanese cult, a stressed English lawyer in Hong Kong, a Japanese working in a record shop in Tokyo, the proprietor of a tea shack on a Chinese holy mountain, the body-hopping spirit of a murdered Mongolian girl, an art thief in St Petersburg, a London bloke à la Martin Amis who works as a drummer and ghostwriter, a pacifist Defense Department scientist on the run from the CIA, and a New York DJ who keeps his voice on air through what turns out not to be a nuclear apocalypse. It is all done with panache: the stories are varied, the voices vivid, and there is much interesting and amusing local detail: ‘everyone knows how Japanese soldiers need more oxygen than humans’ – the tea-shack owner says – ‘so they could never get up the Holy Mountain.’

But the range of this world cruise comes, unsurprisingly, at the expense of texture. The protagonists double as tour guides to their own cultures: ‘Twenty million people live and work in Tokyo,’ the Japanese lad in the record shop tells us; ‘we have a lot of time, us Russians,’ the St Petersburg crook claims. Save in the case of the DJ, the novel creates no reason for these people to be speaking to us. They simply offer themselves like participants in a round of multicultural speed-dating, concerned to be as likeable as possible. Even the fanatical cultist is rather charming. The episodes are linked by occasional economic interdependence and mainly beneficent chance: the narrative structure that Robert Altman used in his film Short Cuts, set in Los Angeles, is here projected across the globe. Beneath the novel’s postcolonial multiplicity lurks a neocon assurance of the smallness of the world and the fundamental Westernness of all who live in it. ‘Backpackers are strange,’ the Mongolian spirit says: ‘I have a lot in common with them.’

Cloud Atlas reruns the concept of Ghostwritten but adjusts it as if to palliate this unease. Here the far-flung but tenuously interconnected characters are all English speakers: rather than pictures from a global family album, Cloud Atlas gives us episodes in the continuance of a culture. But the past and the future, the hither and the yon, again turn out to be stocked with recognisable characters and plotlines. Mitchell flaunts his skill in pastiche, matching his different situations to genres including nuclear thrillers and Asimov-inspired sci-fi. Events crowd in, melodrama flourishes: nothing ordinary is allowed to happen for long. So, with its narrowness, its insistent materiality and, above all, its real strangeness, Dejima is a novelty in Mitchell’s work.

Many details come from Engelbert Kaempfer’s Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed (written a hundred years before the novel is set; but it was a century during which, in Nagasaki, much did not change). The circumstances encountered by Jacob when he arrives – a recent fire; a high-level Company official dead – are those recounted by Hendrik Doeff in his Recollections of Japan (1833). Like Jacob, Doeff reached Dejima in 1799 and stayed for 18 years: Jacob’s upright, precisian character owes something to the personality that comes through in Doeff’s book. The wider world has an influence on Mitchell’s partly imagined Dejima: an English frigate, for instance, appears in Nagasaki Bay (an antedating of an episode that happened eight years later). But their effects are tangled and slow. The difficulties of intercultural relations – so dazzlingly skipped over in Mitchell’s earlier work – here become a focus of attention.

As he settles his fictional characters in their historical lodgings, Mitchell surrounds them with an atmosphere that is convincingly grubby and particular: ‘a bed of clove-crates and hempen sacking’; ‘an archipelago of stains across the low wooden ceiling’; a fly buzzing around a chamberpot; a toucan that ‘pecks beans from a pewter saucer’; plums ‘piled in a terracotta dish, blue-dusted indigo’; the ‘rhythmic scratting’ of copulating rats. The Dutch brought medical advances to Japan and Mitchell seizes the opportunity for grotesquerie: the novel begins with an intimately described forceps birth; later, an ape scampers hither and thither holding ‘an amputated shin with ankle and foot attached’. This is the occasion of Jacob’s first encounter with the alluring Orito; as the price of arranging a second, Dr Marinus forces him to ‘loan his gluteus maximus to medical science’ so as to demonstrate to Orito and his other students the ‘smoke glister’, applied anally to avert ‘death by intussusception or … in the vernacular, “shitting out your own intestines”.’

In language, too, there are obstructions to be negotiated. Dutch terminology, no less than Dutch technology, is crucial: in her role as midwife, Miss Aibagawa asks: ‘“might the doctor have his” – there is no Japanese word “– forceps?”’ Trade negotiations take place via a hierarchy of official interpreters whose task is to keep some bits of language, for instance Christian texts, out of Japan completely; in other cases, communication must be lubricated – as in this exchange at the Nagasaki Magistracy:

‘Ask,’ Vorstenbosch orders, ‘how His Honour enjoyed the coffee I presented.’

  The question, Jacob notices, provokes arch glances between the courtiers. The Magistrate considers his reply. ‘Magistrate says,’ translates Ogawa, ‘“Coffee tastes of no other.”’

The mingled awkwardness and optimism of translation also bring a gentle comedy to the romance of Jacob and Orito: ‘“My pronounce,” Miss Aibagawa asks, “is not very good?” “No no no: you are perfect in every way,”’ he replies, accepting the change she has wrought in his language as in his feelings: ‘Your pronounce is perfect.’

During this first third of the book, Jacob, when not dreaming of Orito, pursues his task of sorting out Dejima’s accounts and bringing to light the illegitimate private trading that the new chief, Vorstenbosch, seems determined to stamp out: this provokes some joshing resistance from his colleagues. He gets to know the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, who also feels an attachment to Orito. Meanwhile, Vorstenbosch presses the Japanese to increase the export quota for copper: as part of this enterprise he prevails on Jacob to forge a letter.

All this is conveyed in a text which relies on direct speech. Different voices are vividly transcribed but, as in Ghostwritten, they are sometimes made to parrot information that should be worked into the narrative. Here are Vorstenbosch and Van Cleef chatting on their way to that interview at the magistracy:

‘Remind me,’ says the Chief, ‘why one magistracy has two magistrates.’

‘When Magistrate Shiroyama is on duty in Nagasaki, Magistrate Omatsu resides in Edo, and vice versa. They rotate annually. Should either commit any indiscretion, his counterpart would eagerly denounce him. Every seat of power in the Empire is divided, and thereby neutered, in this way.’

Later, a hermit herbalist recounts a lengthy bit of storyline to her dog.

The third-person narrative limits itself, in the main, to telegraphic snippets of description which seem designed to read like lines of poetry. It was Ezra Pound who, in Cathay, segmented the habitual flow of English verse so that each individual line became a distinct element in the composition: Chinese poetry, filtered through Japanese and then English translation, gave him his model. Mitchell here tries to do the same with prose. For some kinds of scene, the style is apt. Here, towards the end of the book, is the English frigate entering the bay:

‘This Nagasaki,’ notes Wren, ‘is an anchorage the equal of Port Mahon … ’

In clear water a shoal of silver fish changes direction.

‘ … and four or five modern placements would make it quite impregnable.’

Long and curving rice paddies stripe the low and laddered mountains.

‘Wasted on a backward race,’ laments Wren, ‘too idle to build a navy.’

Black smoke rises from the hunchbacked headland.

The frigate is both impregnable and disoriented, a condition which is well expressed by the oscillation between blunt appraisal and shimmering evocation in the writing. There are other types of scene – such as tense discussion – to which the style is suited. But as the default mode of narrative it becomes wearisome, although there is some virtue to the rebarbativeness, for it keeps continually before us the difficulty of reaching back imaginatively to that strange other place and time.

Strange, at least, in atmosphere and detail, but disappointingly familiar in narrative architecture: the echoes of school life in Worcestershire are only the start. Mitchell has always been fond of 180º narrative reversals. The blueprint appears in Ghostwritten when the Amis bloke, playing roulette, stakes his last £20 on green: ‘The wheel spun, the wheel slowed, and damn me if the ball didn’t fall into the green zero … And fall right out again.’ More elaborate versions of the same predictable surprise occur throughout Mitchell’s work; and they proliferate here in the middle part of the book, starting with the discovery that the whiter-than-white Chief Vorstenbosch is the worst racketeer of them all. Soon, Orito has been incarcerated by the inscrutable Abbot Enomoto in a shrine where ritualised rape and child murder are practised as part of ‘an arcane Shinto ritual that buys blood-drenched immortality’ (this idea owes more to some combination of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Name of the Rose than to anything in Japanese religion). Now the binary narrative machine goes wild, turning out a mass-production Orientalist melodrama: Orito tries to escape! She is going to fail! She succeeds! But she returns of her own free will! Maybe the shrine is not so bad after all! Oh yes it is! Ogawa Uzaemon sets out to the rescue with a revered Samurai master! But he is betrayed by the man he most relies on and the villain Enomoto triumphs! (Only, of course, to get his comeuppance at the end.)

In its last pages, the novel returns to the inquiring, interestingly awkward tonality of its opening. The frigate lingers threateningly in the bay; there is incompetence, misunderstanding, the taking of hostages, shots fired that mainly miss. Out of the muddle comes nothing of much political consequence but a plot development that matters greatly to Jacob and Orito: they are able to meet a decade later and reflect on what has happened. In this closing movement, the peculiar characteristics of Nagasaki two hundred years ago are once more registered in the shapes and texture of the fiction. The routine melodrama in the middle of the book is the more disheartening for being surrounded by such an innovative frame. As Timon Screech, a scholar of the Tokugawa era, has put it, the ‘Euro-Japanese interaction’ that happened via Dejima ‘represents a genuinely unique case study in almost egalitarian cultural collision’. At the beginning and end of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, this stretch of history is given a suitably mind-adjusting fictional reincarnation.

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